Monday, 10 August 2015

The Alaska Marine Highway - a close call with catastrophe.

The MV Columbia
I am back-tracking a little with this post. I last wrote about our introduction to travelling on the Alaska Marine Highway. Click here to read about it. Today I want to tell you about the near catastrophe we had at the start of the voyage.

We left Seattle about midday for the hour and a half's drive to the ferry terminal at Bellingham. Twenty minutes later we passed a sign flashing news of an accident ahead on the freeway. The traffic slowed, crawled, inched forward once or twice, then stopped. After 15 minutes of no movement at all David eased across to the right hand exit lane and we abandoned the freeway.
Clearly we weren't the only ones to think of this. Once off the freeway the traffic was slow but at least it was moving and after a long and convoluted detour we rejoined the freeway a few miles north and arrived at Bellingham about 2.30 pm, only half an hour before the scheduled check-in time.

The ferry wasn't due to depart until 6 pm. However with six ports of call, loading the car-decks was like playing mechanised tetris. Cars, motor bikes, R.Vs, SUVs and trucks all had to be placed according to the constraints of size, weight and destination. There isn't much point in loading vehicles for the ferry's last stop at Skagway behind those for its first stop at Ketchikan. David and I were disembarking at Juneau, which was after Ketchikan, Wrangell and Petersburg but before Haines and Skagway.

The lane next to us boarded at 3.45 pm. Half an hour later we were directed out of our lane and sent toward the ship along the now empty lane beside us. It was another two hours before the last cars were directed on board. They had my sympathy.

Driving into the ship.

The crewmen directing us onto the car deck were pleasant enough but had that casual air which comes of having done the job too many times before. We couldn't hear them over the noise inside the ship and their hand signals were confusing and ambiguous. Inside the ship we were confronted with two small ramps.  Should D drive onto them? If he drove too far there was nothing to stop the front wheels of the car from crashing back onto the deck.  Luckily he hesitated long enough to see a cage-like car elevator dropping from the deck above.  It stopped level with the top of the ramps and D drove forward into it.

The car elevator on board the Columbia.

Having lived in Hong Kong many years ago we were familiar with car elevators. We waited while we were transported up to the top deck then backed out with inches to spare on each side. Amid more ambiguous directions we finally parked. By this time David's stress levels were in overdrive. We unpacked our luggage and sought out the purser's office for keys and directions to our cabin. Over the course of two more trips to the car deck neither of us noticed the car engine was still running. The noise of the ship's engine masked the sound. The ignition system on our rental car is the sort you see from time to time in European cars. There is no ignition switch other than a start/stop button. More fundamentally there is nowhere to put the key. As long as the key, which was in my hand bag the whole time, is in close proximity to the car then the engine will start. Fail to press the stop button and the engine keeps running even if you walk away with the key.

The upper car deck.

We were exploring the ship when several announcements came across the PA.

"Would David Linney please go to the car deck and switch off your engine. Would David Linney please go to the car deck and switch off your engine."

The announcement came three or four more times before finally "Would David Lindfield please go to the car deck and switch off your engine".

Oooppps! We made a panicked dash down to the car deck where David assured me this time he pressed the stop button. It is the kind of mistake you only make once - I hope.

Safely ensconced in our cabin that night my last thought before going to sleep was - 'Did David put the handbrake on?'

The car is insured and frankly neither of us like it that much but nevertheless the thought of it running amok on the car deck was scary.



Underway safely at last - how much damage can a loose car actually do?

For the next post in this series click - here

For all my posts on our Alaska Marine Highway and Alaska Highway road trip click - here

26 June 2015

28 comments:

  1. Wow Lyn, What a harrowing experience and not such a good way to start your trip up to Alaska. Scary.

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    1. You know I really don't like this rental car. Yesterday I was sitting in it looking at a map and it seemed to start up all on its own. David was at a nearby bank, nowhere near the car and he had the key with him. It's weird.

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  2. Quite a story, Lyn. So you have to hop on this ferry in order to go to Alaska? I'd love to visit but your experience didn't seem to be quite the best. I hate to be stressed out like this when I travel. Maybe I should just take a cruise instead. Thanks for joining us for #TheWeeklyPostcard.

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    1. D just hates tours so cruising wasn't really an option and when we found out that most of the cruise lines charge Australians a whopping 25% more for the same cabins than Nth Americans even I didn't want to take a cruise. It is only south-east Alaska that you can't drive to. If you want to head up toward Anchorage or Fairbanks you can drive the whole way.

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    2. Alaska has 12 highways for a state 2.5 times larger than Texas, there are many places you cannot drive. Some roads are gravel and not well maintained. Or you may be driving and all of a sudden the road turns to gravel. Once you are out of the larger cities like Anchorage and Fairbanks one should be prepared for large distances without amenities. Be thoughtful and prepared when planning a trip here.

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    3. This sounds like the sort of advice I might give someone planning a trip in the outback.

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  3. I got a little scared when I read your title. I thought something bad happen to the ship when sailing. Thank goodness it was a different kind of problem (even though it wasn't good either). Glad to read everything worked in the end.

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    1. It is a lot easier to write about near miss-disasters when they turn out okay. If something serious had happened I'm not so sure I could write about it.

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  4. Glad to know nothing worse happened! I didn't know there are cars like that. It's one of those stories further down in time you will talk about and laugh about crazy experiences, even though at that point in time and even now it seemed so stressful :-) we have a few cast stressful stories from our road trips, it all becomes part of the adventure! Thanks lmfor linking with #weeklypostcard

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    1. We had a similar car years and years ago in Europe. I didn't like it then and I don't like this one.

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  5. Sorry, laughing my head off here.It really could have been a lot worse and i was tempted to jump to the bottom and see if you were ok. Turning the engine off? Optional! It was scary but what a great story.

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    1. It would have been a lot worse if a crewman hadn't noticed the engine was still running. I suppose they go around and check the cars but maybe it was just luck.

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  6. Ugh, I really hate those push button starts, too. Sometimes it's just hard to figure out what manufacturers could possibly be thinking when they adopt certain features. So glad everything worked out for the best.

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    1. This particular car seems to have a whole lot of features which have been put there for the sole reason of making it different. For example it doesn't have a gear lever just a knob you turn. I won't even try to describe how much D hates that feature. I have to keep reminding him that we didn't buy, we are only renting it. The most annoying thing though is that in other respects it is a great car.

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  7. I love the idea of trying new cars when you rent; you can learn what features you really enjoy and which you absolutely can't stand. The next time we buy a car we plan to rent it for a week to ensure it's got everything that we really want.

    Years ago my family had a car that used pushbuttons instead of a lever to change gears and I've recently noticed many cars are back to using a knob. What kind of car are you renting?

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    1. It is a Chrysler 200C, so David tells me. I'm not a car person. We have a Toyota Aurion in Sydney. Before we bought it we rented one to drive from Cairns to Cooktown, (600km round trip) knowing we might buy one. It was great because we knew we would love it. The car rental people wanted to upgrade us and we insisted, politely, on taking the Aurion.

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  8. Great story! I always say when something like that happens, it will make for a great post -- this one certainly did!

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    1. On that basis I have lots of material for great posts - lol.

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  9. I'm shocked the car doesn't turn off if the key is out of range for a certain amount of time. Seems essential for safety and anti-theft purposes.

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    1. It is amazing isn't it - but we were several decks above the car and wandering around the ship for a good half hour at least before we heard the announcement to go and turn the engine off.

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  10. Wow, my stress levels would have been high too. I think I'm happy with old school key ignition technology though lol

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    1. Me too. I can't see a single advantage with these electronic keys. They aren't even new technology. We had one on a rental car in Europe about 10 years ago.

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  11. Yep, that sounds a bit stressful to me too. And how annoying that the car doesn't stop itself, very strange.
    Thanks for joining in #wednesdaywanderlust this week

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    1. I looked at the instruction book yesterday and it warns you not to leave the car running but who ever reads the instructions in a car.

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  12. I hate it when attendants take for granted that you know the ropes. When we had to park at Pitvice Lakes in Croatia the two parking attendants who were busy chatting just pointed in the direction of some parking bays (not many) and a forrest road. We did a loop and came back. Where exactly are we supposed to park? Pointed toward the forrest road. OK we just had to find a place beside the road in the forest. No-one is going to see if someone breaks into your vehicle. Oh Well. But the attendant's total disinterest in the whole process left me feeling inadequate in not being able to figure it out ourselves.

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    1. It happens a lot though. I think sometimes people do a job involving giving other people directions so often that they just assume everyone is as familiar with the process as they are.

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  13. Loved your near disaster story! I hope the amazing scenery in Alaska made up for the worry of that car starting on its own!🐦

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